History & Research

Texas Panic of 1860 part 3

By on March 3, 2015

For the past two weeks I’ve been posting a little about the historical background for my novel, Firebrand, concerning the Texas Panic of 1860, where mysterious fires spread across counties in northern Texas months before the civil war and create a panic that leads to dozens of murders and whippings and more. See previous posts to catch up:

August 11, 1860

Today’s post concerns the vigilantism that sprung out of the panic. Soon after the fires were blamed on abolitionists (again, for which there is no actual evidence), committees are formed to investigate “suspicious” activity. They were to root out the abolitionists as a matter of “self-preservation.” The Navarro Express prints the resolutions adopted by one such committee in Chatfield, which to read in full make me sick to my stomach. I would almost rather not post any of these words, but I want to illustrate just how violent the response was towards abolitionism. Here are a few selections:

“RESOLVED, That it is the imperative duty of all good citizens of the Union, North and South, to be active and vigilant in combatting and overthrowing this foul spirit of all evil; that it is a patriotic and christian duty to lay aside minor political differences and prejudices, and to support for office those men, or that party, for which you shall conscientiously believe most powerful to overthrow it.”

“Hereafter when we shall find any abolitionists in our midst tampering with [slaves], we will discard and ignore all smaller punishments; and believing that all the crimes condemned by God and man flow from such principles as naturally as bitter waters from bitter fountains, and inexorably execute our deliberate decree—DEATH!

“RESOLVED, That it is the duty of each and every member of this Association, to closely observe all persons in our midst, and particularly strangers; note their conduct towards [slaves], and any sentiments they express showing abolition proclivities, and report the same without delay to the Chairman or some member of the investigating committee.”

“They (members of the committee) are appointed for one sole and only purpose: to deal with abolitionists and their dupes: remembering that the abolitionists can only receive the punishment of death, or expatriation. Death if found guilty of tampering with [slaves]; expatriation upon well grounded suspicion of guilt.

Navarro Express, August 11, 1860

Navarro Express, August 11, 1860

Besides slaves themselves being targets of vigilante suspicion, northerners and foreigners were also harassed, run out of town, or worse. Which is why in my novel Saoirse and her family are so worried, being newly arrived from Ireland.

Here are clippings from the paper that show the despicable resolution in full, click the image to get a better view (it will allow you to zoom).

In one example of some of this disgusting vigilante “justice,” take the case of Anthony Bewley. A Methodist minister who fled the state with his family after the fires, he is dragged back months later from Missouri to Fort Worth, where he is lynched by a vigilante mob. His crime, according to them, was being an abolitionist ringleader. The only evidence was a letter addressed to a “William Bewley” by a “William Bailey,” who never could be identified, which names other supposed abolitionists (Anthony’s name not among them) and encourages them to keep up the good work. The letter is strongly believed to be a forgery, and if I remember correctly, wasn’t presented even until after Bewley was already murdered.

The furor dies down in the fall and by the time Lincoln is elected as president in November. When Texas votes on secession in February, most of the northern counties are in favor. Which of course makes me wonder if a panic was created solely to push Texas into secession. I’m sure some of the initial fires were accidental, and then opportunists seized the chance. Especially in light of the lack of evidence in cases like Bewley’s.

Or, it could have all been a series of terribly tragic accidents with even more tragic responses. No one will ever really know.

Anyhow, if you want to read more, there’s a wealth of information in Reynold’s book Texas Terror.

Thanks for reading!


Source for quotes and images above:

Modrall, N. P., Rev. and R. A. Van Horn, editors. The Navarro Express (Corsicana, Tex.), Vol. 1, No. 38, Ed. 1 Saturday, August 11, 1860, Newspaper, August 11, 1860; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth179257/ : accessed March 02, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Austin, Texas.

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